Coyote Ugly

Return of the native, Olive opens his first restaurant, woos the sales girls, and offers thoughts on Tex-Mex, bistros, boui boui, and chips and salsa.

After six years in Los Angeles I returned to Paris with the intention of opening a restaurant of my own (or at least in partnership with a bank). With financial help from my parents in the form of a down payment on a business loan, I found a small restaurant in Les Halles, an area in the heart of Paris that was formerly the wholesale produce market for the city. It is adjacent to Place des Victoires, a tony enclave next to the hip fashion center with stores like Kenzo, Cacharel, Yamamoto, and Agnes B. Fresh off the boat from America, I had it in mind to open a Tex-Mex restaurant, and although such things can be found in Paris today, I was a true pioneer in 1987. The challenge would be to convince all those pretty and slim French girls who worked in the chic clothing shops to forgo their usual 55 franc (about $12) bistro menu, consisting of salad, entrée, cheese or dessert and a quarter liter of the house plonk (everything but a smile) in favor of fish tacos with rice and beans, cactus salad in a jalapeño vinaigrette, or even blackened chicken Caesar salad with tequila. The toughest sell of all was the tuna sashimi ("Raw fish!" the lovely mademoiselles would cry. "Are you mad?").

Of course, I was mad, but I knew I had to be different to succeed, and boy was I different. I was playing the novelty card and it was a gamble. The Parisian bistro is more than a place to eat, it's an institution, a place to meet friends and lovers, entertain business associates, and generally perform the function of one's own dining room. Although their numbers have decreased in the decades since the war, they are still as common as pubs in London or coffee shops in the United States. They range from sophisticated restaurants with stellar cuisine to tired, outdated places with stereotyped French food meant to service the ever growing number of tourists. They can be wonderful experiences but they are seldom fun and it would be a stretch to say that French people get excited about going to one. They are like Mac Donald for us.

I knew that I would have to be the polar opposite of a classic Paris bistro – fun, hip, great to look at, and great decidedly un-French food – in short, American. And so I came to open the first Texas Coyote.

If I was right, and people were looking for a change in their culinary experiences, I would be fine because I knew that a Tex-Mex restaurant in Paris then was as far from the normal dining experienced as you could get, especially since I would be relying on the darling, often mistreated little princesses who manned the fancy shops in the neighborhood. I would also be catering to tourists (the Musèe du Louvre was only a few blocks away), financial workers from la Bourse du commerce (the French stock exchange), and several major newspapers including Le Monde and Figaro (you can always count on journalists to support a bar). All in all it was an ideal spot to locate a potentially hip restaurant and bar. Considering that people drink on a regular basis whether you're in France or just about anywhere else in the world, opening a bar, as I would find out time and time again, is pretty much a guaranteed success.

Olive Pilot

Nevertheless, when I told people what I was doing – transforming a small traditional restaurant into a soulful, colorful American bar, and that I would be replacing the bread and butter with chips and salsa – they looked at me as if I was truly bonkers. I will now describe the restaurant I bought. It's what we call in France a boui boui. It means a hole-in-the-wall type of place that serves food and drink. It's very rare in France to see a restaurant of any size that doesn't serve wine or other alcohol, wait, did I say rare, I meant, I have never seen one. For the French, no food is ok, even for a restaurant, but to have no wine or alcohol is definitely not ok and therefore when you buy a restaurant there is almost always a liquor license attached to it. I saw an ad in the newspaper describing the place. As it turned out, the only truth to the ad was that it had a great location. The rest was complete fiction. The restaurant was 2 floors and had the capacity for about 50 seats total, a respectable albeit small establishment.

I convinced the owner to continue operating the restaurant as is for one month after the sale so I could get a feel for the place and its clientele while I figured out what in the hell I was going to do. He agreed although I'm sure he thought I was a little odd (he would realize in time that he had underestimated my oddness). His operating system was prehistoric. He had owned the place for 14 years and I'm sure he had changed nothing except the toilet paper and I'm not entirely certain about that.

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The menu was typically French with good, basic food with little or no imagination and a wine list consisting of mostly cheap, boring wines save for a select few. They served the typical fare, such as steak frites and bavette aux echallotes with fries. Thousands of similar bistros throughout Paris served these exact same dishes every day for the same price, and for all appearances, by the same waiters. I thought it was time to shake up the city a little and what better way than with Tex-Mex food from America. My patrons would have no idea what it was of course, but then neither did I and as long as I kept them from knowing that everything would be great. I came to find that opening a Tex-Mex restaurant/bar in Paris wasn't too different in terms of public perception that opening a caviar bar in a bowling alley in the middle of Idaho.
[Ed. Note: our apologies to Idaho, I am sure they have great Caviar alley with bowling over there, I just picked a state randomly]

In France, to open a business, you need to put about $10,000 in the bank. You cannot use this money until a corporation is formed which takes about a month. This particular restaurant had a liquor license and, except for the major renovation that was required (the kitchen walls were so filthy from decades of grease and smoke that we ended up building another wall right over it), was ready to go. We worked mostly on weekends and at night to avoid the zoning inspectors who seem to insist that people have building permits to do this kind of remodeling, and so naturally there was little to do during the week. Instead, we spent the time checking out the competition. I would go to maybe 10-15 bars and clubs each night and soon realized there was a lot of room for a cool bar with real cocktails. I was by now a good bartender, had learned a great deal about American cocktails, and had worked at some very busy and popular places in L.A. I was ready to take Paris by storm.

[continued]

Olivier's Story:

A Life with Recipes,
or A Parisian in America

By Olivier Said
Translated into English by James Mellgren

Chapters

The Limo Driver
Racket Lesson
Now I have stayed
Live and Drive
Les Anges
Leaving LA
Coyote Ugly
Drinking in English
Outline




Olivier Said

Drinking in English

I leave LA in the evening. I just got tired of it somehow. Maybe I know too many people in this city, or maybe I donít know enough. Or maybe this last year in the restaurant brought back too many memories of my own failed establishment in Paris, memories prompted by the fact that most of the people I know here acquired at least one hangover there.

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